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JQA: The Dorcas Allen Incident, Part One



On August 23, 1837, John Quincy Adams recorded in his diary something that caught his eye in the National Intelligencer, and his verbatim recording of this item in the paper is significant because he never could have predicted how impactful this simple act would have on him. There was a notice that a slave auction was to take place and the advertisement was signed James H. Birch and Edward Dyer. The "sale at public auction at 4 O'Clock this afternoon, of Dorcas Allen and her two surviving children aged about seven and nine years (the other two having been killed by Dorcas in a fit of insanity, as found by the jury who lately acquitted her)" piqued Adams's interest. Adams also noted that the "slaves were purchased by Birch, on the 22nd of August last of Rezin Orme, warranted sound in body and mind." Orme was advised to attend the sale and "if he thinks proper to bid for them, or retake them, as he prefers, upon refunding the money paid, and all expenses incurred under the warranty given by him." This advertisement was unusual in its detail and content. Birch had provided information about Allen's brutal transgressions, something atypical given the desire to execute a sale. But, perhaps the rationale was to use coercion to force Orme to re-purchase Allen. Regardless, Adams desired to know more, and his pursuit of the matter would forever change his view on the institution.

What Adams did not know yet was a story of absolute horror. On August 22, 1837 a complicated transaction was completed in which slave trader James Birch acquired Dorcas Allen and her four children from Rezin Orme of Georgetown for seven hundred dollars. However, Orme uncharacteristically failed to submit a deed to his property. Nonetheless, Birch trusted his word and the sale was finalized. From Dorcas Allen's perspective, this was not the case. She had been living as a free Black in Georgetown with her free husband Nathan, but her status as a free person remained murky. The ultimate responsibility for her status was with Gideon Davis, who happened to be the husband of her deceased owner, and his failure to follow legal channels now had a devastating effect on this woman.

Allen and here children were transported to the slave pens of George Kephart in Alexandria, where they most likely would by transported to New Orleans and Natchez, to supply the burgeoning plantations in the deep South. But, on August 24, readers of the Alexandria Gazette learned of a "HORRIBLE BARBARITY." Allen allegedly killed her two youngest children, "a most barbarous and unnatural murder," by strangling them and attempted to kill the oldest two "by beating them in the face with brick bats, &c, by which they were horribly mangled." In court, Allen pleaded not guilty, and was found not guilty by reason of insanity, releasing her to Birch, who the Court determined to be the legal owner of Allen. Bitch, unable to sell them immediately after the trail, repeated the advertisement, which then attracted Adams's interest.*


*Special thanks to Alison T. Mann and her dissertation "Slavery exacts an impossible price: John Quincy Adams and the Dorcas Allen case, Washington, DC."(2010). Other than newspapers, Adams's diaries, and other resources, her work exposes this little know incident and its powerful impact on those who were interested in her freedom, and I used it to highlight this part of Adams's life which gets short shrift in many publications about him. Alison's work is cited in my manuscript accordingly.

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